The South’s Democracy Deficit

Virginia’s popular government, for example, bore little resemblance to the popular governments of New England. Not only was voting still confined to fifty-acre freeholders and done orally, but the wealthy Tidewater planters retained a disproportionate representation in the legislature. “The haughty and purse-proud landlords,” noted a Massachusetts visitor, “form an aristocracy over the dependent democracy.”53 While this was no doubt an exaggeration that only a frosty Yankee could make, it contained more than a grain of truth. Unlike in the Northern states, the only elected officials in Virginia were federal congressmen and state legislators; all the rest were either selected by the legislature or appointed by the governor or the county courts, which were self-perpetuating oligarchies that dominated local government. Thus popular democratic politics in Virginia and elsewhere in the South was severely limited, especially in contrast to the states of the North, where nearly all state and local offices had become elective and the turbulence of politics and the turnover of offices were much greater.

Wood, Gordon S. (2009). Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States) (Kindle Locations 9655-9663).


As Wood notes earlier in his work, Jefferson, Madison, etc. were able to push a more republican/democratic line in significant part because they were not under much democratic pressure in their own home states – that sort of pressure was being felt elsewhere – New York, Pennsylvania, etc.  I’d say this is an interesting convergence – leaders who press for more open, egalitarian politics who themselves are not really bound by such.

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